Intro by Margaux Williamson, text that follows by Sheila Heti
(I went to see this in a theatre in Los Angeles. I sat next to my friend Sheila Heti. Sheila and I can as easily agree as disagree about a movie we watch together, but in this case, when the credits started to roll and we looked at each other, it was clear it hadn’t worked its magic on either of us – even though it was interesting to watch a movie about driving around in Los Angeles since that’s what we had been doing all day.
I think the elements that were supposed to resonate with me didn’t. I couldn’t see the poetry or the power of the movie, and I had been holding out hope for these things till the end. When, before going into the bathroom, Sheila critiqued the movie, she talked about the main character in a way that I never think about, and I really wanted to hear more. The only thought I’d had about the main character was that it was it too bad they hadn’t cast Bruce Willis.
But when she came out of the bathroom, we couldn’t discuss it because we were late meeting someone for a drink – strangely, at the nearby Chateau Marmont. The Chateau Marmont was the setting of the movie we had just seen, a place I had been unfamiliar with before we stepped into the cinema. Our friend must have picked the hotel after we told him which movie we were seeing.
I asked Sheila if she could write about the film and character here so that I wouldn’t miss out. )
Somewhere covers a few weeks in the life of a 30-ish movie star named Johnny. Instead of acting, he goes to press junkets. He is offered sex at every turn. He drinks and smokes in his un-fabulous apartment at the Chateau Marmont. He feels and thinks nothing.
At one point, he is asked to look after his 11-year-old daughter, Chloe. Chloe’s mother can’t take care of him because she has to do something (we never find out what, or find out whether the mother is Johnny’s ex-wife or his ex-girlfriend or his ex-lay). So Johnny and Chloe hang around. Her beautiful, innocent pubescence returns him to feeling, somewhat. After depositing her at camp, he sees that he is empty. He sits on the floor beside his bed and calls a woman (we don’t know who) and asks her to come over. “I am not even a human,” he says. “Why don’t you volunteer?” the female voice asks. She doesn’t come over. A few scenes later, Johnny calls room service, asks for his apartment to be packed up, drives to the desert, gets out of his car, and walks off screen.
We have no indication of what he means to do off-screen (kill himself? take a piss? return to his daughter?) just as we don’t know why the mother left, or who Johnny called. But I didn’t struggle to find answers to these questions, I think because one senses that there are no answers – that even Sofia Coppola doesn’t know.
For most of us, the details in life matter, because it is the details we have to contend with; the details are the stuff on which our choices turn. In Sofia Coppola’s world, there are no choices, and nothing is difficult to contend with.
In her films, people aren’t deciding-beings or responsible-beings; they are, simply, their context — which they didn’t even get themselves into, but simply where they find themselves placed. Johnny finds himself in the realm of celebrity, so he’s a celebrity. When he’s around his daughter, he has a little more feeling in him, because being around daughters gives one a little feeling. In Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson looks about weirdly because Tokyo makes foreigners look about weirdly. Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker because she was born Sofia Coppola.
What separates a human from a light bulb is that a human creates her life. A light bulb is screwed in. If a human is not shown to make her life, but rather, is just this thing that has been screwed into place, there’s nothing to say about that human.
Sofia Coppola’s protagonists are light bulbs.
Charitably, one might consider that Coppola’s simply representing what it looks like when people have no experience of their own agency. But I actually don’t think the question of agency ever comes to her mind. In one scene I can’t forget, Chloe sits listening to her father play the piano, her arm draped unnaturally over the back of the chair. No little girl would sit that way, but it certainly looks good to place a girl that way. Sofia Coppola’s world is purely a visual one. She reproduces what she sees around her (in this case, one supposes, her friends) and human motivation and choice aren’t things one sees when one looks at people – these things have to be thought about.
What does Coppola think about Johnny? Simply that Johnny is Johnny because that’s how Johnnys are. She doesn’t ask why Johnnys are this way. I’m not sure why she doesn’t ask this. It’s probably because no Johnnys have asked her.